As a young journalist, I worked under a seasoned news editor, Nizam, who enjoyed jesting, “Don’t let the facts spoil the story.” It was a joke, of course, yet to a rookie reporter, those words had a shock effect. I had much to learn.
Now, more than two decades on, I am horrified to see a world abound with murky stories, “alternative” facts, untruths and simply outright lies.
US President Donald Trump has been “caught” so often telling “his” version of facts that the renowned columnist Thomas Friedman commented that it should be “breaking news” when Trump tells the truth. Trump is not the only lying leader.
During the Brexit vote in Britain, Brexiters consistently used faulty figures about the costs for European Union membership, despite complaints by institutions such as the UK Statistics Authority.
We’ve got fake news here too. Just recently, Bata shoe company lost half a million ringgit after a fake – and damaging – story about a religious sign on the soles of one product line.
There are madcap conspiracy theories and absurd fiction dangerously turning into “facts” – vaccines cause autism, 9-11 was an “inside job”, Bill Gates is a eugenist, and (honest-to-God, this was in a local textbook) humans are not mammals.
Oh, and hear this – the world is flat. So argues American basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. He said: “You mean to tell me that China is under us? China is under us? It’s not. The world is flat.”
Welcome to the post-truth world of 2017, where people carelessly say what they like and cherry-pick the news that suits their own biases. The Oxford Dictionary selected “post-truth” as the international word of 2016, after noting a 2,000% increase in usage of the word in 2015.
There was a time when a handful of mainstream media organisations shaped public opinion. People would learn of breaking news in the morning paper and get the day’s round-up with RTM news. Now, news takes many scattered forms, from Instagram photos to one-liner tweets. Indeed the mouthpiece of the current American president is often Twitter.
Once, news editors made decisions on what made news, and targeted a wide, broad audience, reflecting subscription and advertising concerns. Today, that has changed with the power of a click. Stories repeatedly clicked and shared – often stories rousing emotion in a niche group – earn money.
In fact, notes the European Council on Foreign Relations in a commentary, the stories that “elicit the strongest reaction” bring in the most money. And, it adds, Internet companies use algorithms to tailor content to preferences, which has created “filter bubbles”. This way, we stay even more confined in our own news and views.
During the last American election, a small group of young people in Veles, a town in Macedonia, were pumping out stories for pro-Trump websites to earn money from Google AdSense advertising. Wired magazine went down to Veles and found these young people didn’t care if the news was true or false, and didn’t care which politician won the election. They just knew sensationalist stories got more clicks, which earned them more dollars.
“What Veles produced was an enterprise of cool, pure amorality, free of any concern of feeling about the substance of the election. They only wanted more pocket money to pay for things – a car, watches, better cell phones, more drinks at the bar,” the Wired report said.
So that’s news in the post-truth world. Something as significant as the election of an American president was being influenced by a bunch of Macedonian teenagers who simply wanted better phones and more drinking money.
Oh I know politicians have always told lies, and fake news has always existed alongside gossip, and the history of genocide is interwoven with lies, yet I find this new trend in news shocking. We have to rally against this.
One way, suggests the European Council on Foreign Relations, is to try to stem the source of the fake news and to increase transparency in funding. Also important, it adds, is to encourage quality journalism. We can counter bad news with good, well-reported news.
This week, Germany just passed a new bill that punishes social networking sites if they fail to swiftly remove defamatory fake news.
In an article entitled “Our Lying President”, the second of a five-part editorial, the Los Angeles Times called on citizens to make their voices heard.
“Investigate. Read. Write. Listen. Speak. Think. Be wary of those who disparage the investigators, the readers, the writers, the listeners, the speakers and the thinkers. Be suspicious of those who confuse reality with reality TV, and those who repeat falsehoods while insisting, against all evidence, that they are true. To defend freedom, demand fact.”
Those words are true for us all. An insistence on facts, and the demand for evidence of the truth, may be a way to navigate news in the 21st century.